From 2013–2014, I co-authored The New York Times’ Innovation Report.
Dubbed “one of the key documents of this media age” by Nieman Lab, the report led to massive changes at The New York Times and inspired many players around the industry to try to emulate some of the shifts at The Times.
Subsequent digital transformation reports from The Times and from peers like The Wall Street Journal followed — including The Content Review I led at The Journal as a senior masthead editor — and those reports have fleshed out a full picture of the steps news organizations should take as they become more digitally focused.
In this post, I will lay out a few of the most basic changes that news organizations need to make to be digital-first. This has been an important shift to make for years, and it’s becoming all the more important with the momentum that is building behind AI because AI just won’t integrate well into old-school legacy organizations. At the heart of digital transformation is data, and AI, too, relies on business practices that involve data-oriented decision making. Where maybe some news organizations have limped along without taking digital transformation seriously and that’s worked with human readers, that won’t work as well as models/robots/machines become integrated into the content ecosystem.
News organizations that have already accomplished a solid digital transformation — as some have — are better situated to thrive as AI spreads.
- Break down silos — traditionally news organizations have separated the parts of their business with firm walls and discouraged collaboration. This was for good ethical reasons, in the case of advertising and news. But other silos and divisions in news companies do not make much sense today. The teams working on growing subscriptions, for instance, need to communicate with editors who are looking at audience data and driving the coverage strategy. The teams working on building a good product navigation experience need good communication with the teams creating the content that gets created each day.
If your organization is still working in silos, consider these strategies:
- Combine departments where there is a natural connection in their work.
- Create cross-discipline teams and initiatives so that people are working closest to people with shared goals rather than simply with people of the same discipline. For instance, consider teams based around audience reach or audience engagement goals or teams based on particular products so that people can work with others who are focusing on the same goal.
- Find areas where you could use an “embed” model, where people with particular skills report to a manager for career development and evaluation but they sit with a cross-functional team working on a common project.
- Evaluate the alignment of goals/KPIs across departments and make sure you are sharing common data and metrics among your departments to allow for collaboration.
2. Downstream your legacy formats — if you are a legacy media company, you are either a company rooted in print, radio or television. Now all legacy media companies need to be rooted in the Internet. This means you need every part of your company to change the way it operates to make decisions first for digital and to then use the materials created for digital to service legacy formats. For newspapers, for instance, this means focusing primarily on what you are doing to distribute and present stories online and then having a small corner of your newsroom that can pick up stories from online and print them. This is a major cultural shift for newspapers — it means that the print editors are no longer as senior and they no longer have power to determine story lengths or story deadlines. Instead, those matters are decided by digitally-focused editors. There are parallels for ad sales teams — they must prioritize digital ad sales over print. In radio and television, similar shifts are necessary. These formats are linear: to enjoy radio or television, a consumer has to go at the pace of the broadcast. That’s very different from digital mediums, where consumers are used to clicking around, fast-forwarding and controlling their own tempo. Radio and television news, product, technology and business-side teams must grapple with how to rethink their presentation in a world where consumers expect more scanning. More broadly, the shift to digital means that legacy companies with a history in one medium (say, print or television) must now think about all mediums online.
If your organization has not put legacy functions off to the side, here are some strategies to change that:
- Allocate time for your top executives and editors to focus on digital strategy and digital content rather than on legacy formats.
- Focus on the demographics and interests of your visitors on your digital platforms. Understand how they differ from your audience on your legacy platform, and develop plans on how these differences should affect the focus of your content.
- Re-align the incentives for your revenue teams to put a central focus on digital revenue lines. Make sure their incentives are not heavily aligned with sales and programs for the legacy format.
- Be sure that the person leading your digital product development is among the most senior leaders at your company. This may be your chief product officer or your chief technology officer depending on titles, but the key is that product development is a digital function that must be a direct report to the chief executive in the Data Era.
- For your reporters, hold up digital success stories. Be sure not to primarily reward or praise them for simply making the print front page or the evening broadcast.
- Develop a timeline for when your legacy product will no longer be profitable. Share that timeline with company leaders and develop a cross-team plan on how digital revenues will end up higher than those legacy revenue losses.
3. Top-Down Culture Needs to Change — many newsrooms have editors-in-chief whose approval is needed for just about everything. That worked when the business of news was predictable and the only decisions to make were tomorrow’s big news story. But now there are constant decisions to make online about digital practices. And even as you make those choices, the landscape keeps changing, so all things must be re-evaluated constantly. To be a digital-first organization, news companies must communicate goals clearly to teams at all levels and allow for ground-level experimentation. This is a shift in culture for newsrooms and, often, also for the executive teams leading other parts of the business. As a counterpoint to the top-down culture, consider the fact that most software companies allow even junior engineers to test new features at any time without sign off if they run the tests on only a small subset of users. Consider how your news organization can shift to a culture of empowerment rather than one that is hierarchical. Not only will you test, iterate and learn faster, you will also likely retain talent better. News executives — from the newsroom to the ad departments to the subscription team — should all realize that their jobs are changing. No longer can they individually make all of the decisions. Instead, they need to build systems of people and technology that make excellent decisions. So, on a major news story or major sponsorship, the top leaders weigh in, but much of the world of content will go the way advertising already went towards programmatic decision making. In the Data Era, building systems of people and technology that can make smart, responsible decisions is essential.
4. Become Audience Focused — It’s always struck me as odd that the news industry has called the transition its been in the “digital transformation.” I really think it should have been called the “audience transformation.” What the Internet did for news companies was provide audience data for the first time on who is reading what stories, for how long and where those readers came from. The Internet solved the old advertising adage that said “I know half my money was wasted, but I don’t know which half” because the click data shows newsroom editors and advertisers alike who is coming on the page. To undergo true “digital transformation” means using audience data in new ways to inform your content, your advertising, your paywall model and your product experience.
Here are questions to ask to check how audience-focused your news company has become:
- Do you make editorial decisions and news resource decisions (deciding whether to add a beat, for instance) informed by audience data?
- Do all units of your company look at customer service data and also comments posted on site at some sort of regular cadence?
- Do you choose which product and technology features to build based on platform usage and audience data?
- Do you test early versions of product changes to see audience reaction before fully building them out?
- Do you conduct regular consumer research and review it across the company?
Shifting to become an audience-focused company through all units is the best way to break down silos and collaborate among departments. That’s because suddenly focusing on the audience becomes a unifying and clarifying theme. I have written about how the concept I coined at the WSJ — “the MACU” — brought teams together.
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